Located on the edge of Peru along the shores of Lake Titicaca, Puno is a popular sightseeing stop for those traveling between Arequipa or Cusco and Bolivia. Puno’s main claim to fame is the fabled floating islands of Uros, which were constructed of totora reeds in the 16th century as a refuge from Inca conquests. The islands are inhabited by the Uros people to this day and have become one of Peru’s most iconic attractions.
Is there anything to do or see the actual city of Puno?
Most people only come to Puno to visit the Islands of Lake Titicaca. The city of Puno itself is nothing special. The area around the port is grey and industrial, but if you walk up to the Plaza de Armas, there’s a big renaissance church, a handful of older buildings and a few tourist-friendly restaurants and stores.
The Half-Day Tour
The half-day tour was supposed to leave for Uros at 8:30 AM, but of course it delayed almost an hour before embarking. Our guide gave us some background information as we sailed to the first of the two islands we visited. After about 25 minutes, we arrived.
Apparently, the island was only 11 years old and identical to all the other islands, which I suspect have been built specifically for tourists. Our guide gave us a half hour on the island, which were supposed to spend buying souvenirs. Besides that, there’s wasn’t anything to actually do there aside from looking at the straw huts. The islanders would not answer questions about their culture or lifestyle and ignored us until it seemed we might buy something.
Then we were directed to board a traditional reed boat, for which we were charged an extra 10 sol, and sailed toward the main island, the oldest, biggest, and most commercialized of the Uros. We were given another half hour there. As before, the locals will only be interested in getting us to buy stuff, and the island was overrun by other tour groups.
Then we headed back, and the tour was over. We got what we paid for, which is not much.
The Full-day Tour
I didn’t do the full-day tour because it seemed boring and a waste of time and money. The first part of the full-day tour is the same as the half-day tour except you leave for Uros at 7:00 AM instead of 8:30 AM and then you sail 2 more hours to Taquile Island afterwards. Unlike Uros, Taquila Island is not a floating man-made island, so it doesn’t have the same kind of novelty. By the same token, it’s less touristy and more authentic because less people visit it. There isn’t much to do on Taquile besides watch some talented male weavers and hike. If you opt for this tour, you return to Puno at 5 PM. Alternatively, you can spend the night at a home stay.
Everything in Puno is cheap even by Peruvian standards. You can get a private room in a budget hotel for 30 sol or a dorm for 20 sol. Meals fall below 5 sol.
You can buy tours of the islands directly at the port, which is just a few meters from the bus terminal. The half-day tour costs 15 sol and the full-day tour costs 40 sol. Note you will pay substantially more if you buy your ticket inside the bus terminal or at a tour office.
Is visiting Puno worth it?
You may have heard the Uros are touristy, over-commercialized, and inauthentic, and while all this is true, it’s still a unique and unusual experience, and I found it worthwhile. If you are traveling between Peru and either Chile or Bolivia, visiting the islands is definitely worthwhile because it’s on or near your route. If Puno is not a convenient stop for you or you are pressed for time, it’s skippable. I spent very little time and money visiting Puno, which felt justified, and I walked away with some really neat photos and a quirky experience.
If you are coming from Cusco or Arequipa, you should depart at around 10:00 PM at night, so you can sleep through the eight-hour journey and arrive in Puno before the 7:00 – 8:30 AM tour departures. The journey will cost 30 sol for first-class seats or 20 sol for economy seats.
If you are coming from Copacabana, Bolivia, Puno is just 3 hours away, so it would make more sense to arrive the night before. The trip between Copacabana and Puno costs 25 sol or 50 Bolivian pesos.